Mayan ruins at Tikal

Mayan ruins at Tikal*

Enjoy a warm winter break and discover a country rich in rainforest, Mayan ruins, and coral reefs. Formerly British Honduras, Belize is only about as large as the state of Massachusetts, yet incredibly diverse. Within its boundaries lie cool mountains, lush winding rivers, superb barrier reefs, and dozens of limestone islands. Besides being a haven for many of this hemisphere’s endangered tropical mammals, Belize is also a veritable paradise for bird watching. Over 500 species of birds have been recorded in this tiny country. Tucked away in the forests of Belize lie many cities and temples from the great days of the Mayan Civilization. Some of these have been partially excavated and are easily accessible, such as the one we will visit at Lamanai. Just across the border in Guatemala we won’t miss the world-class, awe-inspiring ruins of Tikal. The limestone area of western Belize, with its caves and spectacular scenery, adds another dimension to this trip. We culminate our adventure with a visit to the coast, where beautiful beaches and coral reefs add yet another element, making this trip one of the most diverse that we offer.

Our first destination is the broad, freshwater lagoon of Crooked Tree, the idyllic setting of our lodge. This is a superb place to observe large, wading birds, and as well as the endangered Morelet’s crocodile. Our boatman will guide us along narrow channels and waterways for close views of many showy birds, including wood stork, heron, ibis, and possibly jabiru. We will also explore the Mayan Ruins of Lamanai, one of the largest ceremonial centers in Belize. Many Lamanai temples are still covered with trees and vines. The area resounds with calls of tropical birds, not very different from when the first explorers discovered this site. Carefully planned excavations are proceeding; we will see interesting artifacts that suggest that Lamanai was a city of priests and nobility until it was mysteriously abandoned. The setting here is tropical forest, and is home to a troop of black howler monkeys, known locally as “baboons.” We may be treated to a close encounter, where we can observe their fascinating behavior and incredible vocalizations.

Kapok tree

Kapok tree*

From Crooked Tree, we return to Belize City for our short flight to the spectacular and mysterious ancient city at Tikal. An expert local guide will lead us through this world-class archeological site.  We’ll see the central plaza, dominated by two steep-sided limestone pyramids that rise 120 feet over the ruins. You may wish to climb to the top of the Sun Pyramid, and descend into subterranean chambers to see carvings and structures that were buried under later temples. We’ll visit the ball courts, the palaces of the great nobles, and other ruins linked by ancient causeways. We will learn the meanings of some of the strange hieroglyphics inscribed on the stelae at the great temples and ponder the mystery of why this civilization came so abruptly to an end.  Though Tikal is renowned for its archeology, it is also well known for its birds and wildlife. We’ll watch for parrots, toucans, and other colorful birds as well as spider and howler monkeys, coatis, and peccaries. 

We leave Tikal for Black Rock Lodge, located in the foothills of the Maya Mountains of western Belize on the Macal River Canyon. The area is also famous for caves, and we’ll escape the heat of midday by exploring one by canoe.  The cool temperatures, slow current, and spectacular scenery make this leisurely paddle a delight.  We’ll marvel at the crystalline formations and artifacts left by the Maya, hundreds of years ago.  From the depths of the cave, we will travel up into the heights of the Maya Mountains to experience the strange sight of a vast tropical Pine Forest.  This forest, unique in Central America hosts a variety of interesting flora and fauna and the its sharp escarpments offer magnificent views of distant mountains and plunging waterfalls, one of which is the tallest in Central America.

Rainforest orchid

Rainforest orchid*

We depart this magnificent area for the beautiful coast of Belize.  Placencia is our gateway to Belize’s most famous geographical feature - the long barrier reef on the margin of the Caribbean Sea. The beaches here are some of the finest in Belize and dolphins frequent the clear waters off shore. We will visit one or more of the flat limestone islands that dot the sea in this area. In the protected waters around these cayes (pronounced “keys”) we will snorkel over shallow underwater gardens filled with brilliant tropical fish amongst the corals, sea fans, sponges, and anemones. We’ll also take a boat excursion through mangrove lagoons in search of the gentle manatee, whose population here is among the highest in the Caribbean. There is also time for beachcombing, relaxing, or evening strolls to watch the delicate colors of a Caribbean sunset.  If conditions permit your leader will present a stargazing session (the night sky here can be spectacular) from the beach at our hotel.

Your leader for this expedition is Peter Debes. Peter, a retired science teacher, is a trained naturalist with a Master’s Degree in Environmental Science. He brings years of study and an intense interest in all things natural, especially birds, botany, astronomy, reptiles and insects. He has led previous expeditions to Belize as well as many other destinations worldwide including Peru, the Galapagos Islands, and Southern Africa.

Exploring the lagoons

Exploring the lagoons*

* All photographs are courtesy of David Southby.